Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sopa de Galet

Sopa de Galet is a deliciously rich soup Catalans eat for Christmas Eve dinner.

It's not typically served in restaurants because of course, your mother already made it for you for Christmas Eve dinner.

In other words, if I wanted to try this soup, I had to make it myself.  And so I did.

And you can too, if you can find galets - large, snail-shell shaped pasta. I'd put money on global capitalism that both Berkeley Bowl and Central Market in Houston carry this speciality Catalan pasta.

Nailing down the recipe was a bit of an adventure.

Before Christmas, I had asked so many questions about the traditional Catalan soup that my Spanish teacher, Anna, called her mother in the country for the recipe. Anna, a fabulous teacher but apparently not a chef, gave me instructions for something, but not a soup.

So I decided to wing it using the ingredients list from her mother.

Fortunately, the beef butcher at the market gave me a few tips. Then the pork butcher added her two cents, including her family's secret ingredient:

Not sure what that is, nor do I want to.  Moving on....

After getting more tips from the chicken butcher and the vegetable vendor, I pretty much figured out what I was doing.
So, my recipe below represents a combined effort of at least five different Catalan families. 
Sopa de Galet is very easy to make but requires two days. The caldo (stock) is better the second day and the stuffed galets need to chill in the freezer for at least 24 hours.

Ingredient List
Bag of Galets
Quail eggs (if you're feeling fancy)

Galet Filling:
250 grams of ground beef
250 grams of ground pork
a hunk of dry bread, put in a bowl of milk
two eggs
chopped parsley
minced garlic
salt and pepper

one beef bone
one ham hock
parts of chicken including bones
sausage (preferably blood sausage)
several turnips
some celery
one onion
some carrots
one leek
water and salt

To Make the Soup

Day One:
Put all the caldo ingredients into a large pot. Cover with water and let boil for at least an hour but no more than one day.  Then, strain and reserve the liquid "caldo".
Next, make the galet stuffing by mixing all the ingredients together.
Pour yourself a glass of wine, turn on some nice music and begin the process of filling each uncooked galet with a bit of meatball mix.  I found using a teaspoon helpful.

Galets now go into the freezer. And you are done for the day.

Day Two:
While the galets are thawing, boil quail eggs in water for a few minutes.  Then, peel the eggs and put them aside.
Heat the caldo and when it boils, add the frozen filled galets. Boil for 20 minutes.  Just before the galets are tender, add the quail eggs.

Our buddies Maria (left) and Nuria (right) seemed to think the soup turned out okay:)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

!Bon Nadal!

Here's the Christmas card that didn't quite make it to the mailbox on time:

And the Christmas card from Ted's department at the University of Barcelona:

We're off to the Catalan Pyrenees Mountains for a romantic Christmas, just the two of us and Caga Tio!

Bon Nadal, Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Santa Maria del Mar

Hearing the Prague Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform German composer G.F. Handel's Messiah in the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona last weekend was magical. The place was packed with people - everyone dressed to the nines - who had come to hear a Christmas oratorio in the grandiose Gothic church....

 All I could think about was my Pops and how he always blasted that same music (and the a.c.) in his sedan as we drove through the Texas hill country to my grandparents house for Christmas.  

The acoustics were a bit muffled in the massive, high-ceilinged Basilica, but sound quality aside, the Santa Maria del Mar is now one of my favorite places in Barcelona.

Tucked away in the seaside corner of Ciutat Vella (the Old City), to reach the Basilica you must pass through dimly lit, rambling alleyways, dodging herds of people all the while. But upon entering, you are suddenly surrounded by amber light, space expands in all directions, time pauses. You have the sense that you've been shrunk, like Alice in Wonderland, passing into another world.

The tallest of these columns is over 100 feet high.

It's not only me that's been struck by the expansive interior of the building: Santa Maria del Mar is known to have inspired Antoni Gaudi and the arching, tree-like pillars of his architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.

We haven't actually been inside the Sagrada Familia yet, but when we go we'll report back.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Caganer: Another Catalan Christmas Tradition

In case my post about Caga Tio did not take the edge off your appetite for toilet-inspired Christmas traditions, the Catalans have another that's sure to please.

Allow Ted to introduce, the caganer.

This little figurine goes somewhere inside the traditional nativity scene, you know, the wooden box with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Depending on how much you want to snub the Catholic Church, depends on how close to or how far away from the newborn you place your caganer.

Is this for real?
Even restaurants place poopers, like this one, near the cash register:

And the government proudly displays it's enthusiasm for the pooping man of Christmas by illuminating him on their official building:

Poopers come in all shapes and sizes. I'm tempted to buy them all - shitting Spidy, deuce-dropping doctor, "majon" (huge turd) Messi - and you can too, for about 15 Euros. Here's a site with a shit storm of carganers.

Every year, there's a contest to see which public figure's shit stinks the least. Last year, Barack Obama's bare pootin' booty won by a landslide.  But this year, he's got competition from the Queen of England, who by the way, is missing her porcelain thrown. Hillary Clinton, Tiger Woods, Fidel Castro and Lewis Hamilton are also contenders in this year's Contest of Force.

So what's the scoop behind all the poop, you may wonder?
 I wonder too, but my Catalan friends all say more or less the same thing: "!Es normal!"

Internet research has provided the following three theories:

1.  Someone pooping near the Baby Jesus makes the miracle more natural.
2.  Feces fertilizes the soil and brings new life to the crops.
3.  Someone in the 1800s was playing a practical joke, it caught on, and the Catalans will never let it drop.

This year, we will surely miss the smell of pine trees, my grandma's hand-made stockings, Baba's hot cross buns, Big Daddy's colored lights, caroling, Owen's frosted cookies, Branamas and of course, our friends and families - but this Christmas promises to be like none ever before (insert fart noise here).

!Viva Caga Tio y Caganer!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caga Tio: A Catalan Christmas Tradition

Before moving to Barcelona, we'd heard more than once that the Catalonian's are a very scatological people. And we though, "Sure, who doesn't think poop is funny?" But the fascination / affirmation of feces goes well beyond fart jokes.

Imagine this scene, if you will:

We're at the Balcon.  It's mid-November and the subject of Christmas comes up.
"How does your family celebrate Christmas in the States," Pedro asks us in Spanish.
"We decorate a tree, wait for Santa, maybe go to church, the usual. What do you do in Catalonia?" we reply.

"We have a log we wrap in a blanket to keep warm, feed him oranges, and then he shits out presents for the kids.  He's called the "Shitting Uncle". Oh yeah, and you have to bang on his back to get him to shit. It's super fun," Pedro says with a straight face.

What?!  This is hilarious, but we can't laugh because Pedro isn't joking.  There must be something lost in translation, we think, so we just leave it at that.  But, it happens again. The same conversation with other Catalan friends.

"Caga Tio" or "Shitting Uncle" is the Catalan version of Santa Claus, the big ole fat, bearded man who slips down your chimney while you are sleeping.  Both I guess, are pretty bizarre.

The story of Caga Tio goes more or less like Pedro explained:

In early December, families head to the woods in search of the perfect, round log.  Once it's spotted, it must be quickly wrapped in a blanket, for it ceases to be just a normal log, it is now the magical Caga Tio.

At home, the kids dutifully feed their hungry log everyday for it will never poop out sweet treats if it does not get plenty of fiber.  Oranges are his favorite, but with a varried diet - nuts, berries and chocolate - there promises to be a wider array of gifts when he goes about business.

Finally, it's Christmas Eve.  The children gather around the log to begin hitting Caga Tio with a stick.  First, they hit lightly, but then swift and hard as they sing enthusiastically, 

"Caga Tio, Tio de Nadal
No caguis arengades,
que son massa salades
caga torrons
que son mes bons!
Caga Tio!

Or roughly translated,

"Shitting Log, Shitting log of Christmas!
Don't poop herrings,
for they are too salty,
Poop turrons (a sweet candy)
which are much better!
Poop, Man!

Spoiler alert: While the kids are singing (or praying at the window for Caga Tio to poop), grandma lifts up the log's blanket and puts gifts underneath. The children return for another rousing round of singing and log beating.  Then lo and behold, a miracle occurs! With a majestic bowel movement, the Pooping Uncle has turned those oranges and nuts into wonderful Christmas goodies!

We shit you not, nothing says Christmas like "pooping" in Catalonia.

But wait!
There's more scatalogical fun to be had.  Come back soon for the story of the "Carganet."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Alhambra

Visiting the Alhambra was incredible.
Visiting the Alhambra with two architects, well that was over the top.
Had Bethany and Ed had not accompanied us, I would have left thinking - "Wow, what a delightful palace."
Instead, post-visitation we debriefed over a delicious Spanish meal the elements of excellent design, the features of Moorish architecture, the meaning of beauty, the definition of art... and yes, the fine Rioja wine we were drinking.

I was so excited to learn about the "red fortress" through the eyes an architect, I actually took notes. So, in case you too are interested in a brief overview of the palace, a timeline of Andulusia's history and Bethany's definition of beauty, then by all means, read on...

The first thing to understand is from the Roman architect Vitruvius, author of the earliest definitive theory of architecture, who said all structures should contain three components:

Durability - can it stand up robustly and remain in good condition?
Utility - is it be useful for the people using it?
Beauty - does it delight and raise the spirits?

Check, check and check. 

The Alhambra has it all.  Bethany cried upon entering the palace because she says it's the perfect design that all architects try to replicate.

It's impossible to say if the Moorsish architects of the Nasrid Dynasty had access to Vitruvius's treatise...

Wait, maybe you're wondering, "What is the Alhambra, anyway?"

In the 1200s, a fortress was built on a hill above the current town of Granada to protect the region from warring sects of the fading Muslim Empire, which occupied much of Spain (then, Andalus). As Christians established political control over the region, noble families of Muslim origin created beautiful palaces inside the walls of the former fortress (1200-1450 AD).

An interesting point here is that Muslims had a very different outlook on life than the Christians, who built rectangular, austere churches during same period. The Islamic philosophy (and I'm extrapolating) was that since Paradise is described in detail within the Koran and Allah is pleased when people are happy, good Muslims should attempt to recreate Paradise here on earth.

And so they did. Check out that detail on the walls and ceiling. 

The design of the Alhambra is surely beautiful on a small scale. Intricate wood, tile and stone work adorn almost every surface, but those fine details become part of a larger whole of repeating patterns without becoming distracting. In fact, it is breathtaking.

From every corner of the Alhambra, there is a new, alluring view. The architects, unconcerned with the bird's eye or plan view of the building, focused on how people experience space while moving through their environment.

And here is where the fine wine came in and Bethany explained her concept of beauty:

Beauty comes from two things: repetition and the path the eye travels as it looks at something. If the eye can't move easily to the next point of focus, then instinctively it doesn't like it. When the eye finds a smooth path to visually explore an object, then the thing becomes beautiful.  Repetition is also important, because it's reminds us of the rhythm of life, the beating of a heart, and makes us feel whole and connected with nature.

Another important point to appreciate is that "water is the soul of the Alhambra," and I should credit our tour guide who provided us with these interesting details:

The abundance of fountains, pools, and open channels passing between and through the interior spaces shows that water was central to the inhabitants of the Alhambra. Water was considered a gift from Allah which was to be enjoyed, but also returned to the same source from which it came. This understanding made it possible to maintain a clean water source that flowed continuously from it's source in the mountains, through house and after house, and eventually back to the river below.

The open channels running through the palaces not only provided drinking and bathing water, they also cooled and raised the humidity of the shaded courtyards, providing much needed relief in the hot, dry summers of Granada. The channels and pools also reflected light from the sun, illuminating adjacent rooms and creating meditative, dancing patterns on the walls and ceilings.  

Unfortunately, much of the original Alhambra was destroyed beginning around 1492, when the Christians decided to kick out all non-believers and even those who had converted. For the next several hundred years, the Alhambra was left to decay.

Then around 1800, the Alhambra was "rediscovered" by an American traveler Washington Irving who wrote a romantic story entitled "The Tales of the Alhambra." The Spanish monarchy began to take an interest in the site, as did the artists...

Henry Matisse visited the Alhambra in 1910, called it "marvelous" and said he felt "great emotion" while being there.

M.C. Escher, inspired by the ceramic tiling when he visited in 1922, later said these patterns evoked living creatures which continued to intrigue him throughout his life.

But again during in the 1930's, the Alhambra was yet again abandoned, this time as a result of Franco's fascist regime that wanted nothing to do with acknowledging Muslim influences on Spanish culture.

Since the 1990s the Spanish government has taken a more active role in restoring and preserving the Alhambra. Yet our tour guide estimates that over 40% of the Alhambra has not been excavated.

Who knows what secrets will be found? Until now, the story of the Alhambra is written solely by the "winners",  the Northern Europeans Christians who conquered Andalusia. It is clear that there is an entirely different account of this history and much about Muslim culture in Spain that remains to be discovered.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Parc Guell: Gaudi's Wonderland

The architects, Bethany and Ed, have abducted us on an architectural scavenger hunt / exotic food eating spree. In the past week, we've seen the Alhambra, the Sagrada Familia, Torre Agbar, many lesser known, but equally amazing feats of design, as well as, tasted everything from snails to rabbit tails. Whew!

But more on all that later.

Finally today, we enjoyed a lazy afternoon meandering around the exotic and whimsical Parc Guell created by the famous architect from Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi.

Gaudi was a fervent Catholic who said he was driven to create art as a way to collaborate with the Creator. It certainly feels that way walking around the park as the structures appear to flow in and out of the plant life.

Just as there are no perfectly straight lines on the human body, nor are there any 90 degree angles in any of Gaudi's architectural works. Beth and Ed agree he must have used many a steel beam to reinforce these gently lilting columns which carry a lot of weight:

After being awestruck by the Sagrada Familia the day before, the architects were...

 ...less than impressed with the mish-mash of odd forms in Parc Guell:

I am enamored by it and love his use of colorful ceramic tiles interspersed between the 'melting rock formations':

Even if a bit curious, Parc Guell is an inviting place that begs to be explored: